William Lambers: Basketball can save lives from hunger again

Both the college and pro basketball seasons are heating up now with games every day. I was watching my alma mater, Mount St. Joseph University, play Bluffton University and wondering if basketball could draw attention to global hunger. There are numerous countries where starvation is occurring because of wars and climate change.

It turns out basketball has helped in the past in putting the spotlight on hunger overseas.

In the 1980s when Ethiopia was struck by famine and people were starving to death, the National Basketball Association stepped up. The NBA All-Star players in 1985, led by Denver Nuggets star Alex English, donated their salaries for playing in the game to Ethiopian hunger relief. This kicked off fundraising and most importantly raised awareness of the severe hunger in Africa. As Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers said, “We are here to do our share to save lives.”

When a league like the NBA makes a donation, it shows they care and think the issue is important. That is what led English to propose the NBA get involved with the relief of Ethiopia in the 1980s.

That caring and attention means everything because so often those starving abroad are forgotten, especially being thousands of miles away. Today, no one sees the family in Sudan uprooted by war and struggling to find something to eat. Both Sudan and South Sudan are suffering right now from conflict and extreme hunger. Imagine fleeing Sudan and crossing the border into South Sudan, only to find more hunger and despair.

“We are seeing families leave one disaster for another as they flee danger in Sudan only to find despair in South Sudan,” says Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the UN World Food Program Country Director in South Sudan. “The humanitarian situation for returnees is unacceptable and WFP is struggling to meet the mounting humanitarian needs at the border. We simply do not have the resources to provide life-saving assistance to those who need it most.”

Conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan, Gaza, Burkina Faso, Yemen, D.R. Congo and Mali are causing displacement and food shortages. Drought caused by climate change left Somalia and the Horn of Africa also facing severe food shortages. Haiti, Afghanistan, Syria and many other countries are also suffering in hunger. The WFP says more than 333 million people globally face severe hunger and do not know where their next meal is coming from. In all these countries, deadly malnutrition is a threat, especially to the children.

What’s also tragic is that hunger emergencies get worse, but donations do not keep pace. That has led to cuts in rations for displaced and starving families in many countries.

Imagine infant nutrition and school meal programs facing cuts because of lack of funding. This tragically occurs. Even before the war in Gaza began, the WFP was so low on funding it had to reduce rations there.

We can’t let that happen again. UNICEF, WFP, CARE, Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services, Mercy Corps, Action Against Hunger and other charities need funding to provide life-saving food aid.

That’s why it’s so important that hunger get attention in the media spotlight. The NBA or other high-profile organizations can help do this. If hunger falls off the radar, that makes it less likely Congress will take action too.

This past holiday, for example, Congress failed to act on a Ukraine aid package that contained much-needed funding for global hunger relief.

Suffering nations need food and they need peace. Again basketball can help here too. Catholic Relief Services set up a “Playing for Peace” event at a Villanova-Seton Hall game back in 2012. The idea was to draw attention to conflict and hunger in South Sudan and encourage government leaders to make diplomatic efforts to build peace.

We could use this activism again and the NBA, as well as other sports leagues, could take the lead in bringing attention to the global hunger emergency.

William Lambers, of Delhi, Ohio, is an author who partnered with the UN World Food Program on the book “Ending World Hunger.” His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.